Making a splash in the heart of London: Art of London X Bar Américain
Our Q&A with master mixologist Sean Kelly, Bar Américain
Have you ever wondered what it takes to master the art of mixology?
Sean Kelly, Bars Manager at Bar Américain has spent most of his adult life considering the alchemy of cocktail making. Regarded highly in the hospitality industry, Sean is amongst one the world’s authorities on mixing a drink.
Art of London caught up with Kelly to slake our own thirst for the knowledge concerning the chemistry of cocktails.
Currently working alongside the team behind the prestigious Corbin & King establishment, pandemic guidelines permitting, be sure to stop by Bar Américain to sample some of Sean’s tasty tipples, situated seconds away from Piccadilly Circus.
1. How did you get into mixology?
I started bartending at a restaurant in New York City in 2010. At that point, the cocktail renaissance had spread beyond cocktail bars and the expectation was that all restaurants could make high quality cocktails. It was a bit trial by fire but that can be the best way to learn!
2. Describe the art of mixology…
I might challenge this question. I think mixology is more of a science whereas bartending is the art form. Anyone with quality ingredients and the right recipe can make a delicious cocktail. Bartending, however, is incredibly nuanced and, in my opinion, a true art form. The art of bartending involves being a gracious host who is highly attuned to the needs and expectations of their guests. I’ve also learned it’s very easy for guests to detect disingenuous hospitality so only those who truly love looking after people can create great bar ambience. The art of bartending involves fast and efficient but precise drink making. A great bartender knows that the same drink tastes differently to each guest and so adjustments need to be made without prejudice. Perhaps above all else, details matter! The type of ice, the temperature of the glass, the appearance of the garnish, and the theatre of shaking or stirring cocktails create a very sensual experience and the art of bartending takes these details into account.
3. Describe the art of developing a cocktail menu…
You have to begin with the end in mind. A great cocktail menu, like a great food menu, should evoke a sense of time and place and one that is congruent with the type of experience the restaurant or bar is trying to create. So it is essential to know what type of menu you want to create before beginning to create specific drinks for that menu. It’s also essential for the menu to be balanced. By balanced I mean it should appeal to a wide variety of palettes so whether you like a sweeter style cocktail, a refreshing citrusy cocktail, or a strong, warming cocktail, there is always something to choose. Finally, I personally find the great cocktail menus are rooted in the classics but are identifiably contemporary. In the same way that many great artists build upon, rather than ignore, the work of their predecessors.
4. Where do you find your inspiration for creating cocktail recipes?
I look for inspiration in the classics and in the kitchen! Chefs always have the freshest produce that can be a great source of inspiration for cocktails. For example, when the first batch of rhubarb arrives in the spring it’s hard to not experiment. Perhaps you make a rhubarb jam and incorporate it into a classic cocktail like a gin sour. I also pay attention to what ingredients are exciting people and look for ways to incorporate those ingredients in a way that fits in with our menu.
5. How would you describe the cocktail menu at Brasserie Zédel?
Bar Américain is our biggest and only stand-alone cocktail bar and therefore is the most avant garde of all our drinks menus. Bar Américain is inspired by the American cocktail bars in Paris in the early 20th century and our cocktails are evocative of the Jazz Era. You will find lots of forgotten classics, riffs on classics such as the julep and cobbler, champagne cocktails, and lots of French aperitifs. It’s a place where you can try something completely new and exciting or have a perfectly created classic cocktail.
6. What part do interior design and architecture play at Brasserie Zédel?
The interior design and architecture of Brasserie Zédel and Bar Américain is actually the genesis of the whole concept! I’ve often heard one of our founders, Jeremy King, state that the building influences the restaurant concept. This can be seen in Brasserie Zédel and Bar Américain. The Beaux Arts style of the former Regent Palace Hotel was incredibly well preserved during the renovation of the site and the natural choices to fill this remarkable space was a classic French Brasserie, a Jazz era Parisian cocktail bar, a cabaret lounge, and a café.
7. How would you describe the Brasserie Zédel aesthetic?
Grande, classic, art deco, Parisian
8. What are some of the cocktail trends for 2021?
The most prevalent drink trend right now is the “low and no” alcohol trend. Many bartenders used to deride the need for a non-alcoholic cocktail section to a menu where it is now perhaps the area where the most innovation is taking place. Incorporating the burgeoning market of non-alcoholic spirits, wines, ciders, bitters and aperitifs into delicious cocktails is now a necessity for any great bar. Bartenders are also embracing the need for lower ABV drinks that allow you to have a longer drinking experience responsibly.
9. What’s your favourite cocktail to create and why?
I’m somewhat obsessed with the Manhattan cocktail and love to experiment with different whiskies and vermouths. The Manhattan is sort of my family cocktail as my grandfather was a Manhattan drinker and was allegedly famous for his version of the drink back in the 1950’s. I to this day will bring a bottle of batched rye Manhattans to my extended family Christmas gatherings. It’s incredible how much the drink changes depending on which Bourbon or Rye you choose and how it interplays with different vermouths.
10. Has social media changed cocktail culture? Do you focus more on the cocktail aesthetic to ensure it's instagrammable?
As someone who is anticipating getting kicked off Instagram for inactivity, I’m either wildly out of touch or refreshingly above the fray (depending on who you ask!) regarding social media and cocktails. That being said, it’s impossible to not be aware of its effects. I think the really positive effect of social media on cocktail culture is that it has made bartenders hyper aware of how their drink is being perceived and, as a result, they pay more attention to important details. On the downside, the ubiquity of superfluous garnishes and the absurd presentation of many drinks for the pure sake of getting noticed makes me question whether more time should be spent on ensuring the drink actually tastes good!
11. If you could create a cocktail based on a piece of artwork, what artwork would you choose?
I actually have done this already and it was one of the great experiences of my professional career. I was the Bar Director that The Modern restaurant in The Museum of Modern Art in New York City and we created a cocktail based on the work of Jacob Lawrence which depicted “The Great Migration” of African-Americans from the Rural south to the industrial North. The painting “The migrants arrived in great numbers” (1940-41) is an incredible work and one that creates a sense of transience and also nostalgia for home. I believe a great cocktail can accomplish something similar. To create a new experience while reminding you of the past. For this exhibit, we created a drink called “One Way Ticket” which incorporated classic southern American ingredients including Bourbon Whiskey, iced black tea, fresh lemonade, and peach.
31.03.2021 - 2 years ago